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Autism App Being Developed to Help Practice Life Skills

Pohla Smith

Posted May 21, 2012

First came Popchilla, a blue big-eared robot designed to enable children with autism to recognize emotions in the robot and themselves. Now there's Popchilla's World, an iPad app designed to help those children practice life skills.

Both were created by Interbots, a spinoff company from the Carnegie Mellon University Entertainment Technology Center.

With the app, Popchilla guides the children through life skills such as brushing their teeth or saying hello.

"The idea in general is to help them learn daily routines and social interactions they have to use throughout life on a daily basis," said Interbots CEO Seema Patel. "So for right now we're developing new activities like taking a shower, asking for help -- lots of stuff -- getting ready for school."

The app records data about how well the children have learned those tasks and provides an analysis that can be used by parents, therapists and other caregivers, Ms. Patel said. Still limited in the number of tasks available, it is being tested at the Children's Institute in Squirrel Hill.

Interbots, which announced Popchilla's World to coincide with World Autism Awareness Day on April 2, is running a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds needed to develop more tasks and turn it into a complete game. With Kickstarter, projects are posted online with a fundraising goal and a deadline by which it has to be met. People make donations by credit card, and if the deadline is met, the donations are processed; if the deadline is missed, they don't go through, Ms. Patel said. Interbots' goal is to raise $25,000 by April 30.

"We're hoping to launch with about 10 activities and update it as we develop more of them," she said. "There will be sort of a progression, a story line, where they can practice activities from the time [Popchilla] wakes up till the time he goes to bed."

When the game is finished, it will be available for downloading from an iTunes store.

Meanwhile, the original Popchilla, the subject of a grant-supported project with the Autism Center of Pittsburgh and AutismLink in the fall of 2010, is still in development, with money being raised for manufacturing, Ms. Patel said.

Popchilla, which eventually will interact with Popchilla's World, is being used at the Orelena Hawks Puckett Institute in North Carolina to explore the use of robots in improving the attention skills of children with autism.

For more information on Popchilla's World, call 412-353-9395 or visit popchillasworld.com. To make donations, go to www.kickstarter.com/projects/2029331083/popchillas-world-a-game-for-kids-with-autism.

Pohla Smith: psmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1228.

©2012 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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